When a man’s best friend turns foe

Recently there were two incidents reported of dogs attacking people that left everyone horrified. It is terrifying to imagine a dog, or several of them, fatally assaulting a person for no particular reason. Yet canine experts agree that an unprovoked dog attack is uncommon.

“Most of these little brown dogs that we see on the side of the road just leave people alone, they get on with their own thing,” says Amy Rapp, a certified dog trainer in Nairobi and formerly with the United States Customs’ canine unit for the detection of illegal currency and drugs. “If someone was attacked by dogs, there has to be some circumstance. The dogs might have been rabid, there could have been a bitch in heat and all the males were fighting. But they wouldn’t naturally attack.”

Human provocation can also incite dog aggression. Johanas Mwaura is a senior dog trainer at Security Group Ltd (SGL). “The dog knows how to understand the psychology of a human being even faster than a human being,” explains Mwaura. “They can tell that this person is coming to hit me. They attack you first and this is self-defence.”

Canine specialists concur that with domesticated dogs, including security dogs, responsibility for the dog’s behaviour lies with the owners and handlers. “In most cases it’s not the dogs fault, it’s we the owners – how we keep them, bring them up and how we teach them – just like kids,” states Yusuf Hussein, professional dog trainer with the East African Kennel Club.

Yusuf Hussein, professional dog trainer.

Yusuf Hussein, professional dog trainer.

Dogs are pack animals, genetically wired to live in groups as do wolves or African wild dogs. In the wild, puppies learn everything from other pack members: Who the pack leader is, the pack hierarchy, dog etiquette, body language, the ‘meet and greet’ rituals, defending the territory and so forth.

With domestic dogs, the human family is the pack, the home is the dog’s territory, and the dog handler is the pack leader. The dog handler is the primary person or people that deal with the dog and that could be the security guard, a worker in the home or members of the family.

Raising a balanced, well-behaved dog comes down to two things: socialisation and obedience. “Socialisation is just exposure to new things within a safe environment,” describes Rapp. A dog should see tall people, short people, uniformed people, people of different races, bicycles, cars, cows – anything that is considered part of normal human life. That creates a bomb-proof dog that you can take anywhere and do anything with,” adds Rapp.

Socialisation is lacking when dogs are chained or locked up in small kennels all day then let loose to run around and bark all night. “If something bad happened in your compound the dog would go back and protect that box because that’s where he thinks home is and the dog has no direct connection with the family or the house as a place,” explains Rapp.

Amy Rapp, professional dog trainer.

Amy Rapp, professional dog trainer.

Obedience is teaching the dog different commands to which it must respond immediately and without getting distracted by whatever else might be going around them.

Cliff Brown, manager of the SGL dog section, summarises obedience training. “Not a lot of talking; just commands like ‘sit, stand, steady, heel’,” says Brown. “Your tone of voice should also be authoritative because then there’s no confusion when you say ‘sit’. Obedience is most, most important.” Dogs can even be trained to follow sign language commands, as happens with dog owners who are mute or hearing impaired.

The paramount importance of obedience training, especially with protection dogs, is that it enables the dog handler to control the animal and establish trust. “Obedience is the alphabet,” stresses Hussein. “Every dog must have undergone obedience training whether it’s socialising, security work, tracking, military, you name it.”

With the growing demand for security services in Kenya, security dog training businesses have mushroomed. But dog owners are advised to research carefully as many so-called dog training establishments aren’t going about it the right way.

“Basically what these guys do is they tie your dog to a fence and just whip the dog and beat it up until it bites somebody,” says Rapp. “But what you have to have is the obedience. The dogs have to know all these commands, they have to be able to do them off leash before you teach them to attack some one.”

And this is where many commercial dog trainers are going wrong. “A dog in protection work without control is like having a hand grenade and the pin has been pulled out,” explains Hussein. “Yes, you’ve trained the dog to attack but there’s no restriction as to when should the dog strike, when should it leave and who should it apprehend.”

An ethical dog handler should not simply accept your dog and money for security training but should find out about the dog and its owner. Hussein outlines his line of queries. “How old are they, which breeds, how long have you had them, in what way do you want them to be security dogs? I would tell you that if you want a security dog there is a process you have to follow,” states Hussein who has had to re-train badly instructed security dogs. “Most of the trainers we have are from security firms and they were dog handlers, taken for training with the dog just on agitation,” he reveals.

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A certified dog trainer requires a range of skills for dealing with dogs and not just how to stimulate aggression. “It is for me the dog trainer, to train the dog handler to be able to handle that dog,” says Mwaura, who has been training dogs for 27 years. Furthermore, there needs to be a relationship between the dog and its handler or owner so that they’re working as a team.”

The East Africa Kennel Club offers weekly classes on obedience and socialisation. In each class up to 20 dogs of different sizes, ages and breeds go through a routine of commands and exercises, interspersed with plenty of praise. As the dogs advance new skills are introduced such as off-lead instruction and retrieval work.

Obedience and socialisation should begin as early as possible and you can teach your pet basic rules of behaviour in the home. Starting at 8 weeks old a puppy can be taught to sit and lie down, toilet training, and be put on a lead and walked outside the home.

Agitation work is where most inexperienced or unethical dog trainers go wrong. “They tend to put too much pressure whereby for the dogs now it’s not play anymore, it’s defensive. The dog has to act because of the trauma,” explains Hussein. Professional dog handlers carry out protection training like a game whereby the dog is allowed to win every so often, there is plenty of praise and no painful methods are used.

Dogs will remember painful ordeals and accumulated provocation even years later. “They don’t forget. You tease a dog today, one year or two years down the line, if it was severe, the dog might act on you and one wonders how?” says Hussein.

Taking short cuts in guard dog training leads to unbalanced, frustrated animals. While some people take pride in keeping vicious uncontrollable dogs, this is not an ideal situation and can lead to unprovoked attacks on the wrong person.

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A properly trained guard dog is calm, relaxed and approachable but the handler can command it in and out of attack mode as easily as flipping a light switch.

“They’re running full speed half way across the field, you have to be able to call them off of that,” says Rapp. “And the dog should never be allowed to just decide on its own.”

The mushrooming of puppy mills in Kenya is another contributing factor to unbalanced dogs. Puppy mills are essentially dog breeding enterprises that have little regard for the health and well-being of the animals. Puppy millers often have limited information about the dog’s parentage, vaccination records, medical history or socialisation. It might be cheaper to buy from a puppy mill than from a certified dog breeder or the KSPCA, but cheap maybe expensive in the long run. “The dog may have temperament problems and they may end up biting some one,” expounds Rapp. “They may have hip dysplasia which means expensive surgery.”

In the case of pedigrees the breeding records are vital. “You have to go to the dog’s father, grandfather and great grandparent to know where they came from and the same with the bitch,” says Mwaura. For high quality working dogs, the body form is also scrutinised for defects such as the dental formation, a bent tail, broken ear and so on that disqualify a dog from mating. In the case of guard dogs, the temperament matters. “The male has to be confident. If the dog cannot walk near people, the dog is running away from people, we cannot breed that one,” explains Mwaura.

The manner in which dogs are kept also impacts their socialisation and temperament. The kennel size should be large enough for the dog to move around. Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation or else they engage in destructive behaviour such as digging holes or chewing the kennel boards. “When dogs are out there they utilise their energy playing and it helps them to bond,” notes Hussein. “They will be much more calm because they are tired and they need to relax.”

There is a myth that well-socialised dogs don’t make good guard animals. Dogs are naturally territorial so they will instinctively protect their family and home. Barking when an outsider enters the home is a basic alert signal but once the owner welcomes the visitor, the dog typically exhibits friendly behaviour such as tail wagging, sniffing and licking.

Nor does the gender of the dog matter. “What matters is up here, in the head of the dog, and in the belly,” confirms Mwaura of SGL where one of their best security dogs is a female German shepherd.


Like humans, dogs cannot live on bread alone. Regardless of your dietary restrictions, a dog needs a balanced diet and plenty of water. “You can have a Rottweiler and you never feed it well, it will never be aggressive. You can have the kienyeji dog and you feed it properly and it will attack somebody and kill them,” describes Mwaura.

Any type of dog can become a good protection animal although certain dogs are genetically bred to be less social and more aggressive, and these require careful consideration before taking on as pets.

“Do your research and find out about the breed and why you are going for that breed,” advises Hussein advises. “The compound that I have, will it be enough for them to exercise? Will you have the time? Once you’re out to own a dog, it’s just like having a kid, it’s something that is routine every day, there is no stopping.”

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Source: The Star

8 replies
  1. Samuel
    Samuel says:

    “You can have a Rottweiler and you never feed it well, it will never be aggressive. You can have the kienyeji dog and you feed it properly and it will attack somebody and kill them,” describes Mwaura.

    The statement above is truly something new to me. Did not know that the diet will affect the temperament of the dog.

    Thanks for sharing


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